Friday, 27 February 2015

Picture post

Veterans of this blog - I salute you! - will know that I occasionally post some of my photography on here. I feel that taking pictures is as much a part of me as all the concert-going and CD-listening - so I enjoy sharing the results on the blog. Lately, I haven't been out and about with the camera as much as I'd like, but two recent projects gave me enormous pleasure - as well as a great deal to think about...

I'm particularly keen on taking portraits, and I'm particularly lucky that I have several friends who enjoy collaborating on them with me. Ellie has now taken part in several sessions, so photographing her is extremely natural and relaxed - without taking anything away from the energy and enthusiasm she always brings to the enterprise. Looking to do two contrasting sets - in one day, with minimum fuss - we settled on the Jubilee Line, and Borough Market. (For non-London readers, the former is one of our most modern/futuristic Underground lines, while the latter is an iconic scene of weekend foodie mayhem right next to London Bridge station.)

Because the tube line is more or less how a past civilisation might imagine a spaceship, Ellie did an amazing 'classic Doctor Who companion' - all sleek, stylish sass - then transformed herself for the chill of the market just by pulling her coat on. The pictures, along with Ellie, become visibly warmer. To get a less 'studied' feel, we also experimented with some iPhone photography along with the camera proper to place E more in the context of the locations. Here's a selection. Thanks, as ever, Ellie.

On the subject of phone photography, a Facebook challenge cropped up on my timeline that I simply couldn't resist: post five black and white snaps in five days. At that point, I knew I didn't have any serious free time with the camera coming up, so I just kept my eye out and took a few pictures that interested me. Although the challenge itself only lasted five days, it was enough to make me appreciate the discipline of 'thinking' in black and white - planning for a monochrome shot before pressing the shutter. I hope I can approach some more subjects and sessions like this in future. (That said, I think my next project might be larger-scale and something a bit different from what I've attempted so far ... early days - but watch this space!)

In the meantime: here's two ceilings, separated by a broken home, a crooked house and a grey park.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Waxing lyrical

Browsing the music section in a vast London bookshop the other day, I came across a volume called ‘Lit Up Inside’. It had a plain cover and looked like a slim, austere collection of verse – the uniform, in fact, of its publisher Faber & Faber’s prestigious poetry imprint. Instead, though, it was a selection of Van Morrison’s lyrics. Sensing one of my eyebrows move northwards, I picked it up and had a flick through. Quite a few of the pages seemed to contain this kind of content:

This may remind some longer-toothed readers of Smash Hits magazine, which printed the words to the hits of the day verbatim, no matter how extreme the ‘ooh / ahh’ content, and seemingly always ending with a desperate, helpless “Repeat, and ad lib to fade”. (I still remember reading the lyrics to Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ and succumbing to a kind of low-grade hypnosis.)

I’m a fair-weather Van fan, and adore some of his songs. But surely the point of his most sublime, ecstatic tracks are the repetition, the extemporisation even beyond words in places, against the most lush and warming of musical backdrops. As lyrics – sung, consumed in the manner intended, they take flight. On the page – they die.

And I even rather like lyric books. The most desirable, I think, are those that use the words (usually in the CD booklet already, anyway) as a hook for something else. The fannish indulgence, say, of the colossal illustrated tome, such as the new Dylan volume which needs a team of handlers and a concrete coffee table to support it. Or the horror-cliché of the recent Ian Curtis book, a chilling, grey slab.

Then there are those more elusive editions that slot into the artist’s overall aesthetic – that allow you to read ‘across’ their albums quickly and get inside their head. I’m thinking here of some off-mainstream issues like the early Nick Cave collections ‘King Ink’ I & II – which felt like the print had bled onto the page – or Lloyd James’s superb book of lyrics for his band Naevus, ‘Slopped Down from Eden’.

So, was my distaste for the Van hardback purely a matter of branding? Possibly. Faber had also put out a similar volume of Jarvis Cocker lyrics. I don’t think the intent can be mis-read or mistaken: we are being told that Van and Jarvis are poets.

I remember Simon Armitage (an ‘actual’ poet, also with Faber) saying in an interview once that none of these folk – the Cohens, the Dylans – fit that job description, and I thought he was just being grumpy or defensive. But I see things a bit differently now. It’s not a case of lyrics being too ‘lowbrow’ to be considered poetry. It’s more that by absorbing lyrics into the massive poetic canon, you downplay and dismiss the art of writing songwords.

Poetry makes language work harder, to compress ideas with economy and grace, to find a deeper meaning that carves itself more sharply into the reader’s brain. Poets enable words to create their own rhythm and melody. This is why verse that already exists as poetry often works well in a musical environment. Classical song (Schubert’s lieder, say) revolves around settings of poetry, but more modern examples are there: Yeats has found his way recently into both rock (the Waterboys) and jazz (Christine Tobin). The words don’t even need to be ‘set’ – sometimes supporting music underpins the resonance of the spoken word. This can range from beats like Ginsberg accompanying their own recitals, to the punk poetry of John Cooper Clarke, right through to Matt Howden’s sublime string soundtracks to his father KeithHowden’s powerful readings of his own verse.

But a lyricist sets out to do something completely different and equally valuable. The words they write must merge and unite with the music to lift both parts into a memorable whole. Look at possibly the UK’s most famous and celebrated lyricist – Morrissey. Would the verse he writes ‘make sense’ if issued simply in print? – I’d argue, on the whole, no. It would look a little like soundbites, quotations, or rearranged prose. But he manipulates the words to work solely as lyrics:

  • He repeats key phrases over and over at the catchiest and most memorable points in the song, to cement the earworm (“If they don’t believe me now....” from ‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side’, “Life is very long when you’re lonely” from ‘The Queen is Dead’).
  • He gabbles phrases that don’t scan to give them urgency and bite (the “criminally vulgar” shyness in ‘How Soon is Now?’, “Did you see the jealousy in the eyes of the ones who had to stay behind?” in ‘London’).
  • He leaves phrases hanging, unresolved, letting the music, surrounding words or even the song title do the work. “Sister, I’m a...” (Poet). One of his addressees is anything but ‘Pregnant’ for the last time in the song. “Death for no reason” – Meat – “is murder”. Does he actually articulate the words ‘Rubber Ring’ in the track or does the circling melody between the verses make you somehow understand it?
  • Given that he supplied words and a melody line to backing demos supplied by Marr in The Smiths (I assume he still works the same way with his songwriting partners), his ability to match subject matter to mood is extraordinary: the sinister lope of ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’, the carousel whirl of ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, the agitated unease and explosion of anguish in ‘Girl Afraid’.
Your favourite lyricist will almost certainly withstand the same focus. Play through some of Kate Bush’s best-known songs and notice how every syllable of ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a plea; how the lines of ‘Houndsof Love’ start quickly with short syllables then halt, the language of second guesses and stumbles; how the lyrics of ‘The Dreaming’ are rhythmically rigid to align with the warping note of a digeridoo; how the words in ‘Breathing’ are themselves clipped as the lungs run out of air.

Or Paul Simon. The easy flow of ‘St Judy’s Comet’ as the words become their own lullaby; how the lyrics of ‘Hearts and Bones’ are always pulled back to the higher note, first at a kind of half-speed, then twice as frequently, then, always, to the ‘arc of a love affair’. Again, his use of repetition to flag when a thought is worth having twice – the insistent “The cross is in the ballpark” of ‘The Obvious Child’.

What it comes down to is this: you don’t need to dress lyrics up as poetry to know when they’re great. You just need the records.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Dream states: Jo Quail's 'Nocturnes'

"Nocturnes is an evening of memories, myths and dreams," begins the programme text.

In some of the interviews in the run-up to this special concert, Jo Quail talks about her time away from the cello - itself a kind of darkness, I imagine, given her extraordinary relationship with the instrument now - and how she found her way back. This makes the programming of 'Nocturnes' even more interesting, as the evening builds up into a musical autobiography: starting with arrangements of pieces that shaped her listening and playing, moving to tracks from her two solo albums, before arriving at a majestic new work, a glimpse of who knows how many future possibilities.

But the evening isn't nostalgic - everything from the past is revisited and refreshed, shining new light on some of the pieces we already knew, and bringing the less familiar out into the open for appraisal. In fact, so accomplished are the (re-)arrangements and treatments during 'Nocturnes', it's as if everything resoundingly brilliant about Jo's talent now - composition, performance, even confidence - has been plugged in and shot like a re-energising jolt of electricity through all the music she's absorbed and created.

The opening section of the concert was a sequence of seven pieces - all encountered by Jo at a crucial point in her musical life, getting their hooks (literally!) into her and not letting go. Repaying the favour, she has recast them in her own image and arranged each song for cello quartet (her onstage colleagues are Raffaele Ottonello, Laura Passey and Anna Scott). People used to seeing Jo live will know that she uses loops to sound like several cellos at once. With an actual quartet, there's new flexibility: both accessing the sound of multiple acoustic - rather than electric - cellos, and opening up the floor to tunes that don't necessarily lend themselves to looping.

In just seven selections, the timespan and breadth of genres the suite covers is staggering. (The only other artist I've seen attempt anything vaguely like this is Richard Thompson with his '1,000 Years of Popular Music' - and that was neither as ambitious nor brilliantly compact as this.) The touchstone, if there is one, is the early 20th century classical miniature - we hear Bartok, Schein and De Falla. These are interrupted, however, by a song from 'Fame', a 16th-century meditation, an apparent dose of Jo's beloved hard rock (Van Halen) and some intense, industrial angst (Nine Inch Nails).

Not only does Jo give us a musical self-portrait with these choices, her adaptations are also witty and instructive (in the best, most entertaining sense). Inspiration is an elusive beast, and sometimes just knowing an artist's influences can still leave you some distance from understanding where or how they fit in. Not so here. Listening to Jo's own records in isolation would not necessarily flag openly where a bit of synthesised grind or hair metal has prompted a sound or idea. But hear those favourites played back to us in cello format and suddenly the whole picture comes into focus. The Van Halen track, '316', is a particular highlight. Wrong-footing our expectations, it's not a ferocious rocker but a gentle, acoustic instrumental. As the players abandon bowing to pluck the harmonies from the cello strings, they are - for those couple of minutes - considerably heavier than the Van Halen original. The variety of the arrangements avoids any kind of '99% mournful elegies' cliche and, helped by the church acoustic, all four voices soar.

The first half closes with three of Jo's own pieces, re-imagined for the 'Nocturnes' line-up. 'The Colour of Water' from first album 'From the Sea', is brought beautifully full circle as the original writer and reader of the poem that inspired it, Mohan Rana, returns to recite the verses over the new arrangement. 'Hunter from the East' was originally a wholly electric cello/guitar duet, bathed in ethereal echo; now, with Daniel Merrill on violin, it becomes a kind of other-world music, exotica unplugged, somehow from Further East.

Then, 'South West Night' - which changes every time it's played live, features improvised vocals from Robyn Sellman (as well as DM's violin) - and even the audience are conducted into providing wordless vocals and sound effects. The piece was written to convey the canopy of an Australian sky, and this key bit of information pushes any guest performing it with Jo to try and capture the vast and unknowable. Robyn's performance was extraordinary - fearless and completely unselfconscious, she left vocabulary behind, and managed to convey both beauty and a kind of threatening power.

The stage emptied for the interval - then Jo returned alone to play 'The Hidden Forest', the acoustic solo piece from latest album 'Caldera'. Depicting a sunken forest only revealed as the sea recedes, the piece simulates a tidal pulse with a recurring plucked note through the melody that sounds as if Jo could almost be looping - although she can't be, of course. Switching to electric cello for the next sequence, Jo brought back to the stage someone you could only describe as a secret weapon in human form, percussionist Al Richardson.

In some ways, this was the closest part of the show to Jo's normal set - she stuck to her electric cello and looped her parts as normal. However, on 'Caldera' in particular, there are subtle, measured drum sounds woven into the fabric of some of the tracks, which inevitably don't make an explicit appearance live. Until now. Fans of the new album are unlikely to forget the 'Nocturnes' versions of 'Jhanoem the Witch', 'Laurus' and (to move out of sequence and briefly mention the encore) 'Adder Stone' for the rest of their listening years. Al is such a master of the kit that - not unlike the way Jo layers the cello - you could detect him building the complexity of the rhythms up in audible stages. He starts with sparse, hefty beats and then gradually, as the songs gain volume and momentum, uses more and more of the kit until he's driving the track along before you even realise it. Think of his sound as getting 'fuller' rather than louder. Jo was visibly exhilarated by this virtuosity herself and gave absolutely raging performances. They tackled 'Laurus' - such a storming tune that in a folk-classical parallel universe, it's still no.1 for the 20th week running - without the safety-net starting point of a click track but the sheer intuitive chemistry they share through years of playing together made it one of the tightest, most energised moments of the whole evening. And even this high-octane level of intensity did little to prepare us for the finale, 'This Path with Grace'. After spending the evening polishing the rear-view mirror, now it was time to look ahead.

Jo's most ambitious composition yet, 'This Path with Grace' marries the full string band from the first half of the concert with percussion and choir. In short - everyone returns to the stage along with the Green Army Choir. The music was written to accompany the atmospheric video work of film-maker Michael Fletcher - which is technically astounding yet in thrall to natural forces, so a perfect fit for Jo's music. In Jo's programme notes, she explains how the moon influenced the composition, so perhaps that's why this piece also has such a tidal feel, this time surging and powerful, a more robust relation to the secret, drowned forest.

Everything about this new work reflects and expands on Jo's achievements to date. Her talent for creating multiple structures and bringing them together carries the piece to a jaw-dropping finale as the pounding rhythms return to join the choral throng. The ever-present tensions between ancient/modern, scientific/spiritual, organic/electronic - these all find expression in the 'human instrument' of the voices against the seismic orchestration; and - a touch of particular genius here - the blend of Jo's electric cello with the other acoustic strings. This creates a 'close but not identical' sound mix that blends superbly yet still gives the ear that little electric jolt - "something isn't quite normal here - I must listen harder to work it out."

I think that 'This Path with Grace' can stand proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with Tavener's great work for cello and voices, 'Svyati', which Jo has performed. As Tavener pursued his notion of holy beauty with that work, Jo also seems to be on a quest of her own.

To an artist restless and driven enough to develop new material during live performance, it's easy to understand the appeal of re-visiting music from earlier points in your life. When is a piece really finished? What if we did it *this* way? But 'Nocturnes' was so much more than that. I'm a fan, so I already knew - and will tell anyone who'll listen - that Jo is a brilliant cellist and a writer of singular vision.

But every section of the concert allowed this talent to blossom in new ways: the invention and playfulness in the 'cover versions' at the start; revamping the earlier works for maximum acoustic splendour; and finally, premiering a new piece that brought whole new areas of orchestration and dynamics to her work. Were she to ever go 'the full classical' (and I think she should), she can be confident of conducting large groups of players successfully; from the amount of eye contact and smiles exchanged throughout the whole evening, it was clear to the audience how inspired and fired up the other musicians were - not that we wouldn't have been able to tell from one perfect performance after another. The standing ovation happened for a reason.

'Nocturnes' may be a concert full of dreams (and I use the present tense in the wish there'll be some kind of repeat or sequel). But as well as night thoughts and half-memories, dreams can also mean hopes and ambitions for the future. To me, the evening was just as much about this latter kind. I felt a line of accomplishment had been vaulted with ease, and that these ambitions were becoming realities; it's not really a question of what Jo might do next. It's more: what couldn't she do?

* * *
The recorded version of 'This Path with Grace' is available to stream or - even better - download on Jo's Bandcamp page here. Make haste!

Find Jo's main website here.

Author and fellow JQ fan Carya Gish has also published an eloquent, incisive post about the concert on her blog here - with the added bonus of some superb photos.

Chaos Theory, who promoted this concert, are behind an amazing range of events focusing on non-mainstream yet exclusively enticing musicians. Find out more about what they get up to here.